Social service… for the entire world

James Taylor’s been in touch. It feels freaky. And I think you know what it’s like. You try to avoid someone for 10 years and suddenly there they are, lurking in your inbox. Really. Freaky.All I remember about Taylor from school were his annoying jokes, his empty bragging, his rubbish poetry (poetry!) and his love of bullying kids younger than him. But look, how wonderful, he’s back in my life. He wants to be my friend so we can play online Mafia games together and see what film stars we look like.

By Andy Round

Look there’s even a ‘cool’ picture of him looking ironic. What a goat. Sound terrifyingly familiar? If it does you know you’re part of the biggest social networking community in the world. In 2010 Facebook celebrates its sixth anniversary. You may use it rarely (and then probably just to delete the likes of fat, bald bullying Taylor from your life) or you may revise your status every 15 seconds, but the next time you log on, check out the statistics. They are mind-boggling.

At the time of going to press, there were more than 300 million active users spending six billion minutes on Facebook. Every. Day. Uploading two billion photos every month and updating their status 40 million times every day. Five million new users join every week… Anyway you get the picture. It’s pretty popular. And it’s all down to a Harvard student dropout.

Mark Zuckerberg is 26 next May. In 2008 he was youngest billionaire on the Forbes Rich List worth an estimated US$1.5 billion after selling a 1.6 per cent stake in the company to Microsoft for US$240 million valuing the company at US$15 billion. To what extent the reality of the recession has whisked away that value is uncertain but Forbes recently downgraded Zuckerberg’s fortune by US$500 million.

For a young man, that’s still worth an astonishing amount of money and his rise to success is an astonishing story. He founded the site in his university dormitory room with a handful of friends in 2004. The aim was to simply create an online version of the traditional ‘hard copy’ college yearbook, complete with grinning pictures and biographical details. However, his version would have one major advantage it could be updated as often as you liked. A year later Zuckerberg, dropped Havard, packed his laptop for Silicon Valley and obtained US$500,000 investment from the cofounder of PayPal, Peter Thiel. The rest is internet history. By the end of 2005 the company had a million active users.

Of course the Facebook adventure has not been without incident. The company reached an undisclosed settlement with brothers Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss over allegations that Zuckerberg had stolen their social networking idea. There have also been concerns over the legal collection of personal data, conspiracy theories over governments monitoring users, the use of Facebook for the serving of legal papers, cyber-stalking, memorial (suicide) services and criminal activity. Facebook has been banned, applauded, celebrated and reviled. And still at the centre of it all is Mark Zuckerberg. Facebook is still a private company and still his baby.

He says the aim of the site has always been to bring people together. “We realised there was no way we were going to be able to build all the different ways that people would want to share because the web was growing so quickly,” Zuckerberg says. “We realised we were better off building an eco-system for all the other stuff. No one can do everything. Facebook helps you share more efficiently with the people you talk to all the time, your family, your friends,” he says. “But it really excels in helping you stay connected with the people you know but don’t get to talk to much.”

Not that Zuckerberg is big on sharing his own details in public. Always dressed in jeans, a T-shirt and black fleece, he cuts a shy figure of anonymity despite his distinctive ginger hair and claims he works 24/7 listing his hobbies as sleeping.

So what happens next in the Facebook story? Lots. First there is a film charting the rise and rise of the site scheduled for later this year (2010) called The Social Network produced by the Oscar-winning actor Kevin Spacey and directed by Fight Club’s David Fincher. Next there is the pursuit of greater profitability. In September Facebook announced that it was cash positive for the first time. “We are generating revenue independently of third-party investment and funding,” said Zuckerberg. “We expected to do this in 2010, but we are ahead of schedule.

Hopefully fuelling further profit growth will be the recent launch of Facebook Lite, a stripped down version of the site for users with slow internet connections and targeted at emerging billions of new online users in India and South America. “If the company can cover the cost of scaling to one billion users and still break even, there is no doubt that the company will have an opportunity to rake in billions,” Nick O’Neill of told the BBC recently.

As for Zuckerberg, he says his ambition is to constantly come up with new applications, keep the company private and find new ways to keep people logging on. According to some analysts this may mean the take over of other internet giants with addictive functions similar to, say, the messaging service offered by Twitter and followed by millions or the free online music jukebox service Spotify. It’s all about sustainability, growth and, of course, sharing. “Facebook is not a short-term thing, it’s a 10, 15, 20-year thing,” Zuckerberg says.

When Facebook hit the milestone of 300 million active users last September, the 25-year-old was unfazed. “It’s a large number,” he said. “But the way we think about this is that we’re just getting started. Our goal is to connect everyone.”

Facebook figures

• More than 96 per cent of generation Y are part of a social network

• Social media has overtaken all other sites as the web’s number one activity

• One in eight couples married in the US in 2008 met via social media

• It took radio 38 years to reach 50 million users; 13 years for television to have the same reach; four years for the internet to touch 50 million and just nine months for Facebook to have 100 million users.

• If Facebook was a country it would be the world’s fourth largest.


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